Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine on “A Beginner’s Mind” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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L to R: Sufjan Stevens (photo by Evans Richardson) and Angelo De Augustine (photo by Pooneh Ghana)

Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine on “A Beginner’s Mind”

Invested in the Present

Sep 24, 2021 Photography by Evans Richardson and Pooneh Ghana Web Exclusive
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Oh, the conversations, inventions, ideas, and discoveries one can enjoy when sitting with a friend, watching a movie. It may seem like an obvious or even commonplace experience to consider, but as one gets older, further and further removed from school and responsibility-less free time, it can be more and more difficult to just sit with a friend and watch a film. Not to mention during a global pandemic when it can be frowned upon socially and public-health-wise even to sit together with a pal. Yet, the simple act is exactly what the friends and artists, Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine, did in a cabin in Upstate New York recently. The result of which is a new 14-track record, A Beginner’s Mind, out today and inspired almost entirely by movies the two watched together, enraptured.

“There was a great chemistry and I felt we had a similar aesthetic and language and understanding of music, technically and emotionally,” says Stevens of his early and burgeoning partnership with De Augustine. “It just felt very natural and seamless to transition into writing together.”

Originally, the two met through a mutual friend-singer-songwriter, Denison Witmer. Stevens and De Augustine were introduced to one another by Witmer a few years back. But it was later when Stevens started to hear De Augustine’s music that his ears really perked. De Augustine self-released his first delicate LP, Spirals of Silence, in 2014. But when Stevens heard that and the rough cuts of De Augustine’s potential follow-up, he ensured that his own label, Asthmatic Kitty Records, which he co-founded with his stepfather in 1999 in Holland, Michigan, would release De Augustine’s work.

“Angelo made a record at home in his mother’s bathroom,” Stevens says. “And I just thought it was so beautiful and strange, very homespun. But the songwriting was great.”

Stevens says the album his label put out, Swim Inside the Moon, did well, that it resonated with an audience. In the meantime, De Augustine continued writing even motr music. So, with Stevens backing it, Asthmatic Kitty put out De Augustine’s next record, too, his third, Tomb. Stevens helped to record those tracks. And that happened to be the first time the two were in the same room together working in earnest on music, hearing each other face to face, sonic vibration to sonic vibration. With each day, a friendship grew, shaped. So much so that not long after Tomb was finished, the two hopped in a car, tossed in some recording gear and ventured to one of Stevens’ friend’s old Upstate New York farmhouse to see what they might come up with.

“Sometimes these things cannot end well,” Stevens says, “and sometimes they can really lead to fruitful art and fruitful relationships. We were just lucky.”

Artwork by Daniel Anum Jasper
Artwork by Daniel Anum Jasper

Both of De Augustine’s parents were professional musicians. While he grew up in Southern California outside Los Angeles wanting to play professional soccer, music was always around De Augustine’s house and life. As a kid, his father left and his mother raised him as a single parent. A lot of his early memories as a result are in recording studios or on the road with his mother’s group, in the back of a tour bus. In his early teens, someone handed De Augustine a guitar (he can’t quite remember who) and he began writing songs. He’d always sung but now, with the guitar, a new world unfolded in front of him. And it was his for the creating. “I’ve been doing it ever since,” he says.

For Stevens, on the other hand, who was born in Detroit, Michigan, his folks weren’t musical. He remembers the occasional spirited and stoned parental unit bongo session playing along to the radio, but there weren’t charts and keyboards and drum kids and guitars and amps around the place growing up. Music lived in the car or on the radio. It wasn’t a major part of anything for his family. Later, though, he began investing in it seriously. Not long later, he found great success, both critically and commercially.

Stevens, whose first name is Persian and was given to him by the founder of “Subud,” a spiritual community his parents belonged to when he was born, wrote and recorded his first studio release, A Sun Came, which he released on Asthmatic Kitty, during his final semester at Hope College, a liberal arts school in Holland, Michigan. The album came out in 2000. After school, he attended The New School in New York City where he studied writing, particularly short stories. With ambitions of a novel in his head for a spell, Stevens ended up more interested in music. He released his next album, Enjoy Your Rabbit, in 2001, then Michigan in 2003, Seven Swans in 2004, and the beloved Illinois in 2005, considered by many to be one of the best albums of its decade.

Several other albums and side-projects followed and in 2020, Stevens, who lived in the Big Apple for two decades and later moved Upstate in 2019, released a collaboration with Lowell Brams, called, Aporia, and earlier this year, Stevens released the solo record, Convocations. In total, he’s dropped about a dozen records. But A Beginner’s Mind is his first with De Augustine. But for someone so prolific and popular as Stevens, it may seem difficult to undertake a new project. What will his fans think? What if it’s not great, what if it doesn’t live up to some outside expectation? These are the things Grammy-nominated artists might easily worry about. But not Stevens.

“It’s not hard,” he says. “I’m pretty dissociated and, quite frankly, disinterested in myself as a person of any renown. That doesn’t really inhabit my consciousness at all. And I think it’s because I don’t really have—I’m just not built that way.”

Stevens focuses on the work, the task at hand. He’s not one to wander down the road.

“My music is not just my passion,” Stevens says. “It’s my blood, sweat and tears. My songs are my children. For me, the priority is just taking care of my children. I think in order to do that, like any good parents, you have to forget about yourself.”

Sufjan Stevens (photo by Dawn Miller)
Sufjan Stevens (photo by Dawn Miller)
Angelo De Augustine (photo by Jess Collins)
Angelo De Augustine (photo by Jess Collins)

Like his friend Stevens, De Augustine is not one to think much about the future. It’s easy to picture how someone working with the likes of Stevens might want to dream of notoriety. But, again, that’s not De Augustine’s way—which is one of the many reasons the two musicians are, in actuality, so close.

“I think I do my best not to do that,” De Augustine says. “I think I try to stay as much as I can in what’s going on right this moment. Because I don’t really have any say in what happens down the road with anything. We don’t know if we’re going to be alive tomorrow. I just live my life that way. All you can is just do your best and work hard and try to be a good person. And that’s about it.”

“I don’t think it’s helpful, especially now with COVID and everything,” Stevens says. “You can’t get attached to outcomes. I think maybe that’s why I’m very much grounded in the here and the now. I don’t think too much about the past or the future because I think it’s a distraction and that’s not helpful. And I wonder if maybe that’s why Angelo and I connected so well as musicians and songwriters and friends. We’re both really invested in the present.”

When Stevens and De Augustine traveled to the cabin in Upstate New York, they had the intention of making music. Things had gone so swimmingly with Tomb and their conversations swirling around the record-making process felt invigorating and unique. But there was no set goal outside of music making in general. There was no album idea formed in any clear way. Instead, it was music for the sake of making it, enjoying it. At night, the two would watch movies to unwind. Soon, though, these films became the seeds—or, at least, the soil—for the duo’s new songs.

“The movies were something in the beginning that we were just watching,” De Augustine says. “We didn’t go in with a plan; it was more of an initial inspiration, like a springboard to get us to helpfully something new with the songs.”

Together, the two took in a wide swath of films for eventual inspiration, from Point Break to Clash of the Titans to Mad Max, The Thing, Silence of the Lambs, and She’s Gotta Have It, among others. But for the project, as it was coming together, both Stevens and De Augustine watched these movies, some of which were very familiar, some of which were not, and some of which maintained their big reputations, with an open mind, or “a beginner’s mind.” This is an exercise that is seemingly harder to do these days, in an era when social media and the political realm push people towards instant divisions.

“That just means,” De Augustine says, “to not throw something away before you can really understand it from all different points of view, which is not easy for us as human beings. It’s not easy for us to not be judgmental, though we try. That’s the intention—trying to remain open.”

De Augustine continues, “The worst-case scenario is somebody who isn’t open anymore. We wanted to maintain a sort of childlike wonder about songwriting and about the movies and the world and how it all relates. All these things were important to us.”

One film, in particular, that the duo investigated and used as a “springboard” was the very odd, almost universally panned Wizard of Oz sequel, Return to Oz. The movie, which was released in 1985, involves Dorothy (not played by Judy Garland, of course, but instead by a young Fairuza Balk, who was 10 when it was filmed) going back to Oz to save it from the Mountain King. There are new fantastical friends to meet and danger everywhere, including hyena-like henchmen whose hands and feet are made of wheels. For Stevens and De Augustine, though, the movie represented something truly deplorable.

“That was one of the films that neither one of us had seen,” says Stevens. “It has a reputation for being inappropriate for children and kind of a flop and having no real relationship to the original Wizard of Oz. A lot of these movies [we watched] were actually pretty graphic, or traumatic, or somewhat violent and gruesome.”

For a kids movie, Stevens says, Return to Oz seemed to hinge on the idea of child abuse. Stevens and De Augustine were baffled by how violent the ’85 film was. Every scene Dorothy is met with aggression and antagonism. It’s all about staying alive and trying to fix something she didn’t do. She has to save the world—and one that isn’t truly her own. What’s more of a burden than that? The song that sprung from the movie, “Back to Oz,” is surprisingly bright in sonic tone. It’s catchy at first blush, crescendoing in harmonies, but harsh when you put the pieces together.

“I think with that one,” De Augustine says, “I was thinking about loss of innocence. And, specifically, loss of childhood. It’s a very problematic film. Yet, we were trying to find something redeemable through all that trauma; what can you learn from that? So we’re just basically trying to learn.”

“We’re trying to learn how to be children again,” Sevens adds. “Or, how to see with the eyes of a child. There’s a lot of tension between innocence and experience with these films. We borrowed a lot of those themes and appropriated them. A lot of these songs are about that notion and how, through experience and through accumulation of memories and trauma and pain, that we can somehow find peace and redemption by returning back to the beginner’s mind. The starting place.”

Angelo De Augustine (photo by Jess Collins)
Angelo De Augustine (photo by Jess Collins)
Sufjan Stevens (photo by Evan Richardson)
Sufjan Stevens (photo by Evan Richardson)

Much of A Beginner’s Mind maintains a somber, floaty, dreamy quality. Stevens’ and De Augustine’s voices and sensibilities blend like woven cotton. The record is comforting in melody and nuance and earth-shaking in root and meaning. In the end, though, it’s the type of work that can only be born from trust.

“I think it’s rare to find somebody where you find musical chemistry and also have admiration for each other as people,” De Augustine says. “That in itself is rare and feels like a real gift. But I really like that Sufjan is open. That’s something I really like. There’s some sort of other intangible quality that I don’t know how to explain when you connect with somebody that’s your friend. All I can say is I think that’s rare to find and once you find it, it’s important to cherish that, which I certainly do.”

Stevens says he admires De Augustine’s purity and honesty. There is no artifice, only bold face genuine presence. It’s the stuff that’s birthed a mutual respect, which then creates more ground to stand on as creative collaborators. It’s a self-perfecting system as long as each party maintain communication and gratitude. To be safe, to be open and vulnerable and to share curiosity. That’s the important stuff. And it’s what binds the 14 songs on A Beginner’s Mind, a work made from visuals expressed invisibly.

“Music is insoluble, it’s indescribable, it’s mysterious and sublime,” Stevens says. “And I like that it doesn’t exist, in a lot of ways. Yes, it’s waves moving through time and space. But its impact on the recipient can be so powerful and so life changing, and I think that’s what makes it so exciting and magical.”

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